The sixteenth-century reformation of the family

God wills the family. By creation, commandment, and covenant, God declares that His will for humans is family life. Creation: The first human institution God created was the family, making Eve from the rib of Adam and bringing the woman to the man in the first wedding and marriage. Commandment: God’s law addresses spouses, that they commit no adultery. God’s law addresses children, that they honor father and mother. God’s law addresses generations, that God will show His mercy unto thousands of them that love Him and keep His commandments. Covenant: God’s covenant promise, oft repeated, is that He will be the God of His people and their seed after them in their generations. God wills the family.

The devil despises the family. By the serpent, seduction, and society, the devil announces his hatred for the family. Serpent: Satan’s first assault against humanity was an assault on the family. Before he ever opened his mouth to discuss the trees, Satan targeted Eve the rib, rather than Adam the head, thus declaring his hatred for God’s marriage ordinance. Seduction: Through temptations of pride, lust, deceit, disobedience, and many more, Satan drives wedges between husbands and wives, parents and children, so that families are torn by sin, and sometimes torn apart by sin. Society: Through pressures from the ungodly world, Satan seeks to remove the covenant seed from their godly homes, to shape their hearts according to a godless worldview, and to cut off the seed in its generations. The devil despises the family.

God wills the family. The devil despises the family. It is no surprise then that the home and the family is a prominent spiritual battlefield. So it is today, and so it was in the sixteenth century. In the years leading up to the great sixteenth-century Reformation, the devil, using the Roman Catholic Church as his antichristian instrument, debased and destroyed covenant family life. God, using Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others as His holy instruments of the gospel, restored and refreshed covenant family life. The sixteenth-century reformation of the church was not only a return to the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, but it was also a return to biblical sanctification in the life of the family.

Rome vs. home

By the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had thoroughly corrupted every aspect of family life. The challenge for the student of the Reformation is not to find examples of such corruption, but to know when to stop cataloging them for their multitude.

A quarter of the population had taken vows of celibacy; a utilitarian philosophy of marriage had dampened love; destructive premarital practices compromised the purity of the younger generation; women were deprived of marriage and motherhood in sterile institutional life; fathers neglected their family shepherding responsibilities; church discipline was absent even in the face of adultery. Family life was on the rocks.1

Over against all of these abuses, God raised up men to reform the family. In the colorful, confident, candid style of men earnestly serving their Lord, the Reformers brought Scripture to bear on every aspect of family life.

The reform of marriage, or, depriving “asses of their lion’s skin”

At the heart of the papal assault on the family was Rome’s godless and cruel doctrine of marriage. According to Rome, marriage is a sacrament, to be administered by the church as a means of grace to God’s people. Because marriage is a sacrament, according to Rome, the church claimed “exclusive legal jurisdiction over marriage.”2 In this scheme, the question of who may marry, when they may marry, and how they may marry was to be decided entirely by the church. Rome brooked no opposition to its authority over marriage: not the local civil authorities; not even the parents of the impetuous boy and smitten girl, who, caught in the throes of youthful passion, hastily wed in a flurry of private, secret, and often empty promises. Over against the righteous objection of the parents, Rome permitted and recognized such unions. Among all of the sixteenth-century laments about the sorry state of marriage, perhaps the most common was that the pope allowed, and thus even encouraged, young people to flaunt the will of their parents and marry in clandestine ceremonies. In all matters of marriage, a so-called sacrament of the church, Rome maintained absolute authority.

Rome’s doctrine of marriage was godless because it claimed for marriage a role that the Lord of marriage had never given nor intended. Marriage is not a sacrament. Marriage is not an official means of grace to be administered under the sole jurisdiction of the church. Rather, marriage is a creation ordinance, an institution of God that belongs to the realm of human society. Civil authorities have a say in the marriage of their citizens. Especially parents have a say in the marriage of their children. With pointed wit, John Calvin exposed Rome’s sacramental folly:

[W]hile all admit [marriage] to be an institution of God, no man ever saw [it] to be a sacrament, until the time of Gregory. And would it ever have occurred to the mind of any sober man? It is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments (Institutes IV, xix, 34).

Not only was Rome’s doctrine of marriage godless, but it was cruel to honest men and women. Rome introduced a host of complicated, arbitrary, man-made laws into the solemnizing of marriage. Virtuous men and women with a natural and godly desire to be married were prevented from their desire by some obscure papal precept that they allegedly violated. Violations could be forgiven, but only for a fee, of course. By obstructing lawful unions, the Roman Catholic Church drove people into the temptation of illicit secret sins, tormented their consciences with accusations of violating a multitude of human inventions, and impoverished them with the payment of fees to make everything right with the church.

The Reformers restored marriage to its God-given place as “a good and holy ordinance of God,” not as a sacrament under the sole authority of the church. In doing so, the Reformers exposed the folly of Rome’s cruel marriage laws. Calvin concluded his exposé of Rome’s marriage doctrine, “Methinks…that much has been gained if I have, in some measure, deprived these asses of their lion’s skin” (Institutes, IV, xix, 37). Calvin’s reference was to one of Aesop’s fables, The Ass in the Lion’s Skin. In that fable, a donkey discovers a lion’s skin left in the forest by a hunter. The donkey dons the pelt and amuses himself for an afternoon by jumping out of a thicket and scaring the other creatures. Excited and pleased by their fear of him, the donkey cannot help but let out a great bray just as a fox comes by. The fox recognizes the donkey for what he is: not the lion he pretended, but just a silly old ass after all. Through its false doctrine of marriage as a sacrament, Rome had donned a lion’s skin and terrorized God’s people. When the Reformers came along and recognized the bray of the Antichrist in Rome’s voice, her reign of terror was over. Underneath its false doctrine of marriage, Rome was just a silly old ass after all.

The reform of single life, or, “The lamentations of seven pious but disconsolate priests whom no one can comfort”

Perhaps the most pitiful aspect of family life in the sixteenth century was the sad lot of singles. Single life is not sad in itself, but blessed, for God declares that single life is good. “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (I Cor. 7:1). Through His single apostle, God declares, “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I” (I Cor. 7:8). However, Rome took God’s good gift of single life and turned it into a miserable, unhappy, and unnatural bondage.

Rome’s first error regarding single life was to teach that virginity and sexual abstinence is always holier than married life and sexual intercourse. Single life was held up as the holy ideal toward which all should strive, while marriage was viewed as a concession to the flesh for weaker Christians. Even though marriage was a sacrament for Rome, single life was supposedly holier. Rome’s second error regarding single life was to force many men and women into a cloistered life, without any hope for a spouse, a home, and a family. The monks in their monasteries and the nuns in their convents swore oaths of life-long celibacy. In the years leading up to the Reformation, as much as a quarter of the population had sworn such oaths.

Rome’s ideal of singleness and celibacy was unbiblical. Although single life is a good gift, God does not give that gift to everyone. To many, even to most, God gives the good gift of marriage. Marriage is not a lesser state. Marriage is not a concession to a supposed weakness of the flesh. Rather, marriage is good and holy. Marriage was given to mankind even in his state of perfection, as God brought Eve to Adam in marriage. All of the Reformers insisted on the goodness of marriage. For example, Luther wrote: “Marriage is not only an honorable but a necessary state. It is earnestly commanded by God that in every condition and station in life men and women, who were created for it, should be found in this estate.”3

Rome’s false doctrine of single life was also cruel. Man’s desire for sexual intimacy is given to him by God Himself. God created man male and female. Male, with male appetites. Female, with female desires. These appetites and desires are not intrinsically evil, but are natural and proper, and may be exercised with clear conscience in the God-ordained sphere of marriage. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:1). When Rome compelled men and women to forego marriage and live in single life, it violated their nature as male and female, plagued their consciences by leaving them no lawful way to satisfy their God-given desires, and exposed them to grievous temptation as their natural drive asserted itself. For those who fell into that temptation, all could be absolved by the church, but for a fee, of course.

Because of Rome’s false doctrine of single life, the sixteenth-century monastic system was filled with sexual predators and gross immorality, much as it is today. One Lutheran pamphleteer captured the horrors of the monastic system under the memorable title, “The Lamentations of Seven Pious but Disconsolate Priests Whom No One Can Comfort.”4 The pamphlet is a fictional conversation between seven priests, lamenting the burden that Rome’s cruel laws had inflicted on their tormented consciences. The first priest complains of the evils of monastic celibacy and recounts in graphic detail the many depraved ways that he had broken his vows. His account climaxes with the priest leading worship on Sunday, while a married woman whom he had seduced and his many illegitimate children stare back at him from the pews.

Over against these evils, the Reformers encouraged men and women to marry. They even insisted that monks and nuns should break their vows of celibacy, for God’s creation of male and female took precedence over their vows. Said Luther again, “Priests, monks, and nuns are duty-bound to forsake their vows whenever they find that God’s ordinance to produce seed and to multiply is powerful and strong within them. They have no power by any authority, law, command, or vow to hinder this which God has created within them.”5 The converted monk Martin Luther practiced what he preached, marrying the converted nun Katherine von Bora.

Single life is a good gift of God, but it is a gift with an important qualification: It is for those who can contain. That is, for those who have a special gift of control over their God-given natural appetites and desires. For those who can contain, it is good for them to remain single. For everyone else who cannot contain, “it is better to marry than to burn” in lust (I Cor. 7:9). By encouraging and requiring those who cannot contain to remain single, Rome bound them in wretched slavery to their lust. By restoring single life and married life respectively to those for whom it was intended, the Reformers liberated men and women from Rome’s bondage.

The Reformed family

More chapters could be written regarding other aspects of family life that were reformed in the sixteenth century, including the reform of biblical manhood with the man as the spiritual head and leader of the home, the reform of biblical womanhood in the sphere of the home and family, the reform of childbearing, and the reform of childrearing. Every aspect of covenant home life was brought back to biblical foundations during the Reformation.

God wills the family. The devil despises the family. In the sixteenth-century reformation of the church, God restored family life, according to His promise, “At the same time, saith the LORD, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:1).


1 Scott T. Brown, Family Reformation: The Legacy of Sola Scriptura in Calvin’s Geneva (Wake Forest, NC: Merchant Adventurers, 2009), Kindle, Ch. 2, Sec. “A House of Inventions.”

2 Joel F. Harrington, Reordering Marriage and Society in Reformation Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 28.

3 Quoted in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, ed. John Piper and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 215.

4 Cited in Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), Kindle, Ch. 1, Sec. “Celibacy and Marriage.”

5 Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1955–1973), 45:19.